Pregame Six Pack: Primetime at Purdue

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Four down, eight to go.

After digging themselves into an improbable 0-2 hole, the Irish are ready to push their way above .500, a long slog back after two really disheartening losses. They’ll have their chance to do it in primetime Saturday night, with the Irish and Boilermakers kicking off at Rose-Ade Stadium at 8:00 p.m. ET. (You can join me, as always, for a very spirited live-blog.)

With losses on consecutive Saturdays to open the season, the Irish faced traditional opponents Michigan State and Pittsburgh, two teams that Notre Dame has struggled with in recent years. That the Irish dispatched the Spartans handily and escaped Pittsburgh with a win was everything the Irish needed to do to get their season back on pace. Yet as only Irish fans can do, a very vocal contingent has turned more negative about the season than they were after dropping the first two games of the year.

After two weeks of offensive regression, Tommy Rees and the Irish offense have a chance to go put together a solid performance. They’ll need to do it in front of 60,000 fans and a primetime ESPN audience. Entering the second act of the season, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftover and miscellaneous musings as the Irish prepare to take on Purdue at 8:00 p.m. ET.

1. Offenses beware: Running against the Irish is no easy feat.

In retrospect, the Irish’s performance against Pittsburgh running back Ray Graham already looks much better than it did last Saturday. The Irish defense held Graham to 89 yards on 21 carries, letting Graham loose for a 42-yard scamper, his longest play from scrimmage on the year. Even with that run, Notre Dame held Graham to his lowest output on the season, just days before he was unleashed against South Florida on Thursday night, running for 226 yards on 26 carries.

After four games, the Irish shutting down impressive running games is starting to become a trend.

Thanks to the Irish Sports Information Department, here are the Irish four previous opponents, how they’ve run the ball against the Irish, and how they’ve done against everybody else:

USF                                              Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               126.0                                                       262.7
Average Per Rush                      3.0                                                           6.1

Michigan                                     Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               114.0                                                       348.0
Average Per Rush                      4.4                                                           7.3

Michigan State                           Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               29.0                                                        181.3
Average Per Rush                      1.3                                                           4.1

Pittsburgh                                    Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               103.0                                                       192.6
Average Per Rush                      2.7                                                           4.4

Purdue head coach Danny Hope understands the Irish will be the best challenge his upstart running game will face.

“They’re good against the run. They can shut your run game down,” Hope said of the Irish defense. “Most of their opponents this season have struggled to manufacture any sort of run game. When that happens, you become somewhat one-dimensional and that plays into their hands.”

We’ll see how Ralph Bolden and Akeem Shavers do against a stingy Irish defense. It’ll likely tell the story of the Boilermakers offense.

2. Brian Kelly has made it clear just how important this game is… to Purdue.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly isn’t a guy that puts his foot in his mouth too often. But there’s one thing he’s done consistently this week that’s been a bit of a head scratcher: He’s continued to call this weekend’s game Purdue’s Super Bowl.

“This is their Super Bowl. This is the biggest game on their schedule by far,” Kelly said earlier in the week, and continues to echo this line of thought. “There’s no question about it. We’re going to get everybody’s best shot.”

It’s true that the Notre Dame is usually one of Purdue’s most important games on the season, but something about an opponent’s coach naming  your team’s Super Bowl strikes me as a little strange. But backing up the truck, maybe it’s a case of Kelly playing some motivational games with his own team.

If there’s a common theme Kelly is hitting on with his team, it’s that Purdue is a team that’s going to be on a mission. They’re hosting a large recruiting weekend, turning Saturday into a Gold & Black game, and are on the verge of pulling off a sell out crowd. Combine all of that, and there’s little doubt that Danny Hope’s squad comes ready to play.

(That said, if Kelly’s just taking a dig at Jim Delany‘s B1G conference and its merry band of cupcakes on the schedule, I’d probably get a chuckle out of that, too.)

Realistically, we’ve got no clue what kind of team we’ll be seeing on Saturday night. They snuck by one directional state school and thumped another one, and sandwiched those games between losing to one of the worst teams in D-I football. Then again Pitt gave up seven sacks to Maine and only beat the Black Bears by six before absolutely killing USF Thursday night.

The message? Frankly, I have no idea.

3. Purdue is confident sophomore Ricardo Allen might have some answers for Michael Floyd.

If Purdue was looking for the blueprint to slow down Michael Floyd, they may have gotten a peak last weekend against Pitt. But Purdue also has a weapon of its own, sophomore cornerback Ricardo Allen, who walked onto campus last year for Hope and became one of the team’s best defenders. Good news for Boilermaker fans? He’s still getting better and better.

“I think Ricardo has really progressed from this point in time last year,” Hope said. “It’s hard to tell because a lot of people are not throwing his way and running the ball. Maybe just the stats and his numbers don’t jump out at you quite like they did this time last year. I think he’s really improved from where he was at this time last year as far as we can tell because he has not been tested. Saturday, he’ll be matched up on one of them.”

That “one of them” is Michael Floyd. How the Boilermakers decide to help Floyd should determine how big of a difference Tyler Eifert, Theo Riddick or TJ Jones make.

“Obviously, if they have two or three guys looking at you all the time, there’s obviously got to be someone open,” Floyd said Wednesday. “We’re trying to get the guy open. I’m trying to do as much as I can to make sure to put [Tommy Rees] in the most comfortable spot as possible.”

Allen will likely stay on the field side of the formation while fellow cornerback Josh Johnson covers the short side. Whether or not the corners switch sides to keep an eye on Floyd, it’s clear Purdue’s secondary knows the Irish receivers present a challenge.

“We feel comfortable with those two guys and we don’t have to run around and match up,” Purdue DB coach Lou Anarumo said. “They have three good receivers. Michael Floyd is a great player but the other three — two wide receivers and the tight end — they’re very good players.

“We’re going to be conscious of where (Floyd) is every snap but we’ll be aware of the other guys that can beat you too.”

If I had to guess, expect to see the Irish try and jump start Riddick with some easy completions.

4. Credit Kelly and company for some nice work with halftime adjustments.

If you were surprised by Pitt scoring on their first possession of the third quarter, it’s because it just hasn’t happened all that much for the Irish. Tim Prister of IrishIllustrated.com crunched the numbers, just to show how impressive the Irish have been after making their halftime adjustments.

Notre Dame has pitched a shutout in six of the last nine third quarters, surrendering a mere 23 points.

Only Pittsburgh last week has put together a sustained scoring drive in the third quarter against the Irish in their last nine games, and that required a roughing the punter penalty to keep the drive alive.

“That’s what we’re trying to build here,” said Brian Kelly Wednesday when asked about Notre Dame’s recent third-quarter prowess. “We knew that our success was going to be linked toward building a defensive philosophy and a mentality and a way we play.”

Notre Dame’s third-quarter numbers are even more impressive when you consider that Tulsa’s seven third-quarter points last season came on a 59-yard punt return while USC’s 10 third-quarter points came on a field goal that capped a seven-play, 25-yard drive and a four-play, two-yard “touchdown drive’ following a Tommy Rees fumble.

Over the last nine games, Notre Dame has out-scored its opponents in the third quarter, 59-23. Over the last eight games, Notre Dame has a 51-16 advantage.

In five of those nine third quarters, the Irish have surrendered 59 yards or less. Only Michigan has gained more than 100 yards in the third quarter (137), thanks in large part to a 77-yard pass completion (that eventually led to a fourth-quarter score).

Even Pittsburgh didn’t crack the 100-yard mark in the third quarter against the Irish last week, despite a 19-play, 80-yard drive. The Panthers’ other drive in the third quarter netted a minus-eight yards.

There will still be complaints about the Irish’s defensive coaching until Gary Gray starts winning some one-on-one deep balls and Bob Diaco‘s troops slow down Air Force and Navy, two games that should be absolutely intriguing from a Xs and Os point of view.

One thing is certain though, Diaco’s continual preaching of the fundamentals has helped turn this defensive unit into a BCS caliber group.

5. The trip to West Lafayette is a return home for new Irish trainer Rob Hunt.

If you’re looking for one of the most under-reported stories of the offseason, it was Brian Kelly bringing in Oklahoma State trainer Rob Hunt, completing a major overhaul of the medical and training staffs that oversee the football program. Hunt’s work with the Irish has already helped the team, with the Irish staying relatively healthy through four physical games on the schedule.

Hunt’s career has seen him zig-zag from Ball State to Missouri to Southeast Missouri to Oklahoma State. But the chance to return to his home state of Indiana was just too good to pass up.

Sam King in the Lafayette Journal & Courier has more about the West Lafayette native:

A return to Indiana was welcome for Hunt and his wife, Krista, also a 1993 West Lafayette graduate.

After never being closer than six hours from West Lafayette, moving to South Bend has offered plenty of family time in the last six months.

It also gave Hunt the opportunity to work with one of the most storied college football programs.

“Certainly all of us have dreams to be at the pinnacle, at the best of your profession,” Hunt said. “I prided myself on doing a good job no matter where I’ve been. I didn’t know where it would take me.

“The tradition here is unlike any other. It’s difficult to describe. It’s been a great six months for me to this point. We’re looking forward to many years here supporting this football program and coaching staff.”

Kelly, Notre Dame’s second-year head coach, is equally as happy to have Hunt.

Upon hiring Hunt, Kelly was quoted in the Chicago Tribune as saying, “We think we got the best in the country.”

Last season, it seemed like just about every non-lineman on the team was battling hamstring problems at one point or another, with the Irish losing a ton of critical minutes with correctable injuries like muscle pulls. Right now, only Danny Spond has missed any time from a hamstring injury, with the only other major injury being fifth-year tight end Mike Ragone’s torn ACL.

Hunt comes from a large family of Purdue graduates and fans, making the weekend back home even more special.

“We’ve watched a bunch of Purdue games in that stadium,” Hunt to the J&C. “It’s going to be a little different standing on that sideline as a member of the opposing team.”

6. It’s time for Tommy Rees to start building some confidence… as three quarterbacks are waiting.

If the Irish are going to get to the places they want to this season, they’ll need Tommy Rees to start developing some confidence. While Kelly has done his best to shield his young quarterback, the sophomore knows he’s got to play better.

“I think the whole being a sophomore thing isn’t really that relevant anymore,” Rees said. “I need to improve how I’m playing and keep getting better. It can’t be a matter of age or experience. I think I can be the quarterback for this football team and I think I need to be learning by my mistakes and playing up to my capabilities.”

There has been enough debate this week about Irish quarterbacks to last an entire offseason. But if Rees is going to continue to pilot this offense, he’ll need to take big strides against Purdue and Air Force, two defenses that shouldn’t stack up all that well against the Irish’s explosive and balanced attack.

Kelly has made it clear that he’s still supporting Rees as his starting quarterback, but you’ve got to think the head coach would also love winning one of the next two games comfortably so he’s able to give Dayne Crist another chance to play, only this time in a low-leverage situation.

Kelly talked about keeping all four of his quarterbacks ready to go, even when it’s been Rees that’s taken every snap since halftime against South Florida.

“First of all the quarterback situation is such that the No. 2 knows he has to be ready,” Kelly said after Thursday’s practice. “So he’s doing his work because he knows he’s one snap away from being in there, so you never worry about two in that sense.

“I try to spend more attention and time with three and four. That’s why we’ve had them both stay with us and be part of meetings and game planning as well as go over there and get some work. I’ve tried to spend a lot of time with the threes and fours in keeping them engaged and learning our offense. I meet with them individually as well to just make sure that they’ve got a good base.”

That Kelly himself spends time with the third and fourth sting quarterback is just an amazing contrast from what Charlie Weis used to do with his quarterbacks. But it also helps explain why he’s kept so much harmony in a really difficult quarterbacking situation, where a roster imbalance meant bringing in multiple kids bunched together, something that makes depth chart continuity tough.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Friday at 4: 40 Predictions

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The Notre Dame class of 2021 moved onto campus today. Roommates were met. Lofts were modulated. Mothers cried. These things are as inevitable as summer equaling visits to brewery rooftops, Christmas bringing familial tension, and someone being upset about where the Irish land (or don’t land) in Monday’s Associated Press top-25 release.

Years ago, I managed to move in two days earlier than most freshmen. International students are afforded that luxury. No, I am not from abroad. As has been discussed, this scribe is a Wisconsin native. Rather, my roommate was from Canada, though I will always take great joy in reminding him my green-and-gold hometown is actually farther north by latitude than his Maple Leaf roots.

Two weeks after moving in, I wrote my first football article for The Observer, Notre Dame’s student newspaper. It was actually purposed for a long-since defunct blog. It included references to “Rudy,” Sly Stallone and initial, but momentary, college friendships. Pretty standard fare, in all of reality, though the ignorance of the AP Stylebook and improper usage of only makes its author cringe in rereading.

That roommate did not notice those errors. Rather, his review was simple and has stuck with me nearly a decade later.

“You shouldn’t have started with ‘I think.’ It made your point weaker.”

He was, and is, right. With all due respect to that fact, arbitrary, varied and debatable predictions may necessitate a weaker stance. Thus, I think … (more…)

Notre Dame unveils Rockne Heritage uniforms

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Notre Dame will wear Rockne Heritage uniforms in the home schedule’s season finale against Navy on Nov. 18. Though they are alternate uniforms, the outfits are far more in-line with the typical Irish weekly attire than most years’ additional uniform designs are.

Clearly paralleling the $400 million in updates to Notre Dame Stadium, “The House That Rock Built,” the uniforms combine the fashion of Knute Rockne’s era with the progress afforded nearly a century later.

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“I think it is a unique opportunity with this uniform to celebrate the past while creating the future,” Under Armour Design Director Nick Billiris said in a University release. “That’s why we incorporated some of those elements that harken back to the 1920s and the 1930s when Knute Rockne was there, but we did it with cutting edge fabrics and technology. The whole idea is that this uniform is a time-capsule of Notre Dame football from when Rockne first grew the football program into the national power that it has become today.”

Perhaps most notably, the uniforms will feature a ND monogram unfamiliar to modern fans. It comes from a 1912 sweater, per Billiris.

@NDFootball | Twitter

The helmets will lack some of their weekly shine, with subtle graphics intended to elicit the leather helmets of the 1930s.

Each uniform will read “ROCKNE” across the back nameplate, and will feature an excerpt of his famous “We’re going to get them on the run, and we’re going to keep them on the run” pep talk on the shoulders.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Miami (OH)

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When former Irish offensive coordinator Chuck Martin left Notre Dame for Miami of Ohio, he was departing a team coming off a frustrating, but promising, season for one showed no great potential and any frustration around it would have started with misguided optimism.

Since then, the Irish have gone up and down while the RedHawks have trended in only an upward direction, albeit slowly. That growth will be tested quite bluntly in Martin’s return to Notre Dame at the end of September.

In an effort to desensitize any to the time and channel of that game, they will be mentioned in this space anytime the Notre Dame vs. Miami (OH) matchup is discussed.  Hopefully when that week comes around, no questions will remain about the Irish playing at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN on Sept. 30.

2016 REVIEW
Miami had one of the most-interesting storylines in the country last season, beginning the year 0-6 before finishing 6-7, becoming the first FBS team to ever follow a six-game losing streak with a six-game winning streak within one season. All six of those wins came in conference play.

That opening series of losses was not simply due to facing superior opponents. The RedHawks choked away a win over Eastern Illinois by getting outscored 14-0 in the fourth quarter, losing 21-17. The tail end of the half dozen losses came against MAC division foes Ohio and Akron. Ohio’s head-to-head victory gave the Bobcats a tiebreaker over Miami, hence why Ohio headed to the MAC title game and not the RedHawks when they tied atop the Eastern Division at season’s end, with Akron three games behind them tied for third place.

The swing in the season came in part due to a quarterback switch. Then-sophomore Billy Bahl was putting together a statistically-satisfactory season through five games, completing 55.2 percent of his passes and throwing eight touchdowns, but then he went down with a season-ending injury. Martin first turned to a freshman — who has since transferred from the program — but he did not perform such in the loss to Akron to convince the coaching staff not to start then-sophomore Gus Ragland a week later.

Quarterback Gus Ragland‘s insertion into the Miami starting lineup played a key part in flipping the Redhawks‘ season. (Getty Images)

Ragland proceeded to lead the way in the six-game winning streak, throwing 15 touchdowns and no interceptions in that stretch. With the 6-6 record, Miami headed to the St. Petersburg Bowl, falling 17-16 to Mississippi State. Ragland threw two touchdowns and one interception, going 22-of-30 for 263 yards.

Ragland certainly deserves some credit for the midseason swing, as does Martin simply for keeping Miami upbeat and confident enough to string together a few wins. Yet, it was somewhat a schedule fluke, too. In the six wins, the RedHawks beat only one team that finished better than 3-5 in the conference. The one team earning that exception was Eastern Michigan, not exactly excelling with its 4-4 conference mark.

WHAT MIAMI (OH) LOST
Perhaps even more encouraging than the six-game winning streak was the youth with which the RedHawks rattled off those wins. Offensively, Miami lost receiver Rakeem Williams and his 26 catches for 501 yards and three touchdowns. The yardage qualifies Williams as Miami’s No. 3 receiver last year, but it came despite missing two games due to injury. If healthy, he may not have leapt to No. 1, but he was, for all true intents and purposes, the most dangerous receiver on the team, averaging 19.3 yards per catch.

Defensively, the Redhawks will need to find a new source of a pass rush. While they returned six of their top eight tacklers, the two who left were also the leaders in sacks. Defensive ends JT Jones (No. 6 tackler with 47) and Austin Gearing (38 tackles) combined for 10.5 sacks, eight more tackles for loss and 10 additional quarterback hurries. Add in the departure of fellow defensive end Zach Smierciak and his three sacks, and suddenly Miami is without more than half its 24 sacks from a year ago.

WHAT MIAMI (OH) GAINED
Included in a recruiting class which rated about middle of the pack in the MAC, defensive end Joshua Maize could quickly find himself working to replace some of that lost pass rush. While he was never necessarily a recruit targeted by Notre Dame, Maize — from Deerfield, Ill., a Chicago suburb north of the city and only about two hours from South Bend, Ind. — did visit campus three times.

HEAD COACH
Martin enters his fourth season at the Cradle of Coaches. There are two particular items to note about his return to face the Irish. First of all, Notre Dame deserves some degree of credit for how often it reaches out to former assistants or administrators to offer a scheduling boon. Similar to this contest, the Irish men’s basketball team will visit Delaware this winter to face former assistant Martin Inglesby. Notre Dame does not need to schedule those games, but it is a small luxury afforded former staffers who left on good terms.

Secondly, and related, the Irish schedule would have allowed for Martin’s return in his second or third season with the RedHawks if he had wanted such. Instead, he intentionally put off the game until his fourth season there, hoping to bring a more-respectable team to Notre Dame.

Considering Martin has turned Miami from an 0-12 team the year before he arrived to a genuine MAC title contender this season, it seems appropriate to say he achieved his goal of respectability, if not more than that.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
Heaping too much praise onto Ragland could come at a cost. Then again, his record as a starter is 6-1. That praise is earned.

Ragland not only aided the Redhawks offense with his nearly mistake-free passing, but also with his rushing abilities. (Getty Images)

This year, he will lead an offense returning nine starters, including four offensive linemen with a combined 80 career starts. They will be opening holes for a running back by committee attack that fared quite well last season. Including Ragland, Miami’s top-four rushers combined for 1,726 yards. Ragland accounted for 202 of those. Remember, that came in only seven games. All four of those rushers return.

The RedHawks also return four of their top-five receivers, losing only the aforementioned Williams.

Overall, the offensive unit should continue the prolific stretch with which it ended the season. In weeks six and seven last year (the turn from the losing streak to the winning streak), Miami totaled 260 yards in each game. In the following six contests, the RedHawks averaged 409 yards per game.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Aside from the already-discussed pass rush, Miami is returning nearly all of its defense, including eight starters. Most notably, junior linebackers Junior McMullen and De’Andre Montgomery each started 13 games last season, and will now be joined by classmate Brad Koenig, who started six.

On the outside, senior cornerback Heath Harding should warrant NFL notice by the end of the year, and his counterpart junior Deondre Daniels should not be scoffed at, either, having broken up six passes last year and intercepting one more.

SEASON OUTLOOK
Miami is favored to win the MAC’s Eastern Division, though only a touch ahead of Ohio in that evaluation. (The two face off on what should be an annual holiday: Halloween MACTion!)

If Martin can lead the RedHawks to a conference title game in only his fourth season at the helm of what was the laughingstock of the FBS, then he will be well on his way to continuing the tradition of the Cradle of Coaches.

On that note, the Notre Dame vs. Miami game could present a great opportunity for additional homages to the late Ara Parseghian. He got his start at Miami, and obviously reached a legendary status with the Irish.

Monday: Temple
Tuesday: Georgia
Wednesday: Boston College
Yesterday: Michigan State
Tomorrow: North Carolina
Sunday: Bye Week
Monday, the 21st: USC
Tuesday, 22nd: North Carolina State
Wednesday, 23rd: Wake Forest
Thursday, 24th: Miami (FL)
Friday, 25th: Navy
Saturday, 26th: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Michigan State

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It was a disappointing 2016 season for Notre Dame followed by a long offseason spent thinking about said disappointment. Compared to Michigan State, though, the going has been smooth. Not only did the Spartans finish a game worse than the Irish last year, even with the victory in their head-to-head matchup, but this offseason has been a tumultuous one for the Michigan State program. Four players have been dismissed from the team amid sexual assault allegations.

2016 REVIEW
The Spartans started last year ranked No. 11 in the Coaches Poll and No. 12 in the AP’s. A year earlier, they had won the Big Ten and made it into the first College Football Playoff. Expectations were high for the 2016 season, higher than a No. 11/12 preseason ranking would belie.

A cruise-control win over Furman followed by a game of two halves victory over Notre Dame lifted Michigan State to No. 8 in both polls, starting to fit more in line with those best-laid plans. Then it all came tumbling down.

The first indications of that collapse came in the final 17 minutes of the 36-28 win over the Irish. Leading 36-7, the Spartans gave up three touchdowns on three consecutive possessions. With all the momentum on the Notre Dame sideline, Michigan State finally managed a defensive stop with 3:30 remaining in the game, draining the clock from there.

A week later, the Spartans could not manage to find the end zone in a 30-6 loss vs. Wisconsin, starting a spiral of nine losses in 10 games, the only bright spot being a victory over Rutgers.

Unlike the Irish, Michigan State did not let opportunity after opportunity slip past. Instead, the Spartans were on the wrong end of one-possession games only three times.

WHAT MICHIGAN STATE LOST

Former Michigan State defensive end Malik McDowell (Getty Images)

For a program coming off a 3-9 season, the length of this list illustrates just how much of a letdown 2016 was in East Lansing. Defensive end Malik McDowell and safety Montae Nicholson both heard their names in the NFL Draft, in the second and fourth rounds, respectively. That is just a start, though.

With sophomore receiver Donnie Corley (33 catches for 453 yards and three touchdowns as a freshman) among those dismissed this offseason, the Spartans said farewell to their top four receivers. Quarterback Tyler O’Connor graduated, as well, though his 58.8 completion percentage and 16-to-9 touchdown-to-interception ratio hardly pushed the offense forward.

Including McDowell and Nicholson, Michigan State also lost five of its top eight tacklers. McDowell managed 5.5 tackles for loss while linebacker and No. 3 tackler Riley Bullough added 6.5 more. Cornerbacks Demetrious Cox and Darian Hicks both make that top-eight cutoff, but more notably contributed a combined 13 pass breakups, too.

WHAT MICHIGAN STATE GAINED
The Spartans signed 24 recruits to finish with the country’s No. 33 class, per rivals.com. That class included 4 four-star prospects, most notably receiver Hunter Rison. Given the exodus of receivers, Rison may be called upon for contributions early in his career, perhaps by his third game in a primetime matchup against a longtime rival.

HEAD COACH
Mark Dantonio enters his 11th season in East Lansing, and a 3-9 season did nothing to the temperature of his figurative seat, especially not a season after coming within one game of appearing in the national championship.

Discounting last season, Dantonio amassed 87 wins in the previous nine years. Rough math obviously indicates that is nearly 10 wins annually. Suffice it to say he had established a high-level program with the Spartans and will look to trend back toward that par this season.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
Without a returning receiver who recorded more than a dozen catches last season, and without a quarterback who competed in more than two games, it makes sense to think Michigan State will turn to its running game in 2017. That makes even more sense when considering the Spartans return sophomore left guard Tyler Higby (six starts in 10 games before an ankle injury) and junior left tackle Cole Chewins (three starts in 12 games) to pave the way for running back LJ Scott. The junior gained steam as last season progressed, finishing with 994 yards on 184 rushes, good for an average carry of 5.4 yards.

Running back LJ Scott (Getty Images)

Once Scott establishes the Spartan running game and a theoretical play-action threat, the eyes will turn to sophomore Brian Lewerke. Earlier it was said 2016 starter Tyler O’Connor left room for improvement. That was recognized five games into last season, when Lewerke was given the chance to start despite being only a freshman. A week later, he broke his leg, ending his season and seemingly cementing Michigan State’s struggles. In that brief action, Lewerke did not exactly dazzle, completing 31-of-57 passes (54.4 percent) for 381 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.

But he earned enough coaching faith to be given the chance. He will have it again this year.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
This seems hard to fathom for a Dantonio-coached team, but the defense might be a Spartan weakness for the second consecutive year. For context, Michigan State allowed 27.75 points and 395 yards per game last season. Now Dantonio looks to replace most of a secondary, possibly relying on a true freshman to start at cornerback in Josiah Scott.

If the Spartan defense does buckle down, it will be on the backs of its defensive line’s interior and its veteran linebacker core. Sophomore tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk saw action early in their debut campaigns, combining for 42 tackles with Williams also chipping in two sacks of the defense’s 11 total sacks. Yes, Michigan State managed three fewer sacks than Notre Dame’s paltry pass rush a season ago.

A level behind them, senior Chris Frey led the team with 96 tackles last year and is flanked by junior Andrew Dowell (fourth with 67) and sophomore Joe Bachle.

SEASON OUTLOOK
Michigan State faces a tough schedule this season, certainly one more difficult than a program looking to rebound would prefer. The Spartans will have to travel to Michigan, to Minnesota and to Ohio State, as well as host Penn State, not to mention Notre Dame.

To top a win total over/under of 6.5, they may need to convert two chances for wins at the end of the season, vs. Maryland and at Rutgers. Naturally, slipping past that season-long metric would set up Michigan State to return to a bowl game. It may not be a return to the College Football Playoff, but capitalizing on extra practice time and then entering an offseason with a win — and much better vibes than was the case this past year — would be the first step to the Spartans returning to Dantonio’s standard.

Monday: Temple
Tuesday: Georgia
Yesterday: Boston College
Tomorrow: Miami (OH)
Saturday: North Carolina
Sunday: Bye Week
Monday, the 21st: USC
Tuesday, 22nd: North Carolina State
Wednesday, 23rd: Wake Forest
Thursday, 24th: Miami (FL)
Friday, 25th: Navy
Saturday, 26th: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)
Sunday, 27th: Six days until Notre Dame kicks off. You can make it that far, right?